Friendships carry us through the high and lows of life. From celebrating our successes to helping salve the sting of rejection, the people we choose to surround ourselves with offer an unparalleled kind of support. But there is not much structural guidance on how to nurture our platonic, intimate relationships.
On this installment of Embodied, host Anita Rao examines the importance of friendship with guests that are best friends themselves. Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman are co-authors of “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close” (Simon & Schuster/2020), as well as co-hosts of the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend.” They share their insight on “big friendships” and how to care for them as life puts them to the test.
Sow on the definition of “big friendship”:
The word “friend” just encompasses so many different kinds of relationships. You're talking about people that you literally only know on Facebook, or people that you want to be with you on your last days on Earth. And so it's quite a range. But in coining “big friendship,” we were really trying to get at this tier of friendship that really transcends life phases, that transcends geographical locations and that transcends emotional shifts. We are talking about the kind of friendship that you want to be rooted in the future and someone that you are hoping to build a life with over the long term.
Friedman on why platonic, intimate relationships are not studied or culturally valued like familial or romantic relationships:
This is a little bit of a chicken or egg problem in some ways, right? We don't have a definition and a way of really talking about how these kinds of friendships are different. And then we also culturally don't have a lot of things that reflect the fact that friends play these roles for us. It's not really common to name your friend as, say, your medical proxy, or to maybe buy property with a friend if you want to invest in a house together. Those things are still not normalized. We're not seeing commercials of friends doing these big life stage things together. And so I think that even when people are having this very intimate, emotional experience of friendship, and knowing that this is someone who is so core to them — they still don't see that reflected. All we see is more traditional family structures and things like marriage and romantic partnership.
Sow on how to decide on the extent of ‘“stretching” in a friendship:
The questions that I always try to ask myself are: Why am I feeling the way that I'm feeling? And am I telling my friends that I'm feeling this way? And if not, why? I think that really starting from the place of being introspective about your own behavior and understanding why you might be frustrated and how you might want to communicate about that [is crucial]. I think it's really important to listen to that voice because I think that a lot of times ... you are noticing a pattern and not a one-off incident.
Friedman on including the rift in her and Sow’s friendship in the book:
We were saying things that were hurting the other's feelings, or maybe not picking up on the fact that one of us was trying to signal that she was unhappy or needed something more from the friendship. And we write about how these incidents kind of started small. Things that we both maybe brushed off fairly easily, but then led to bigger and bigger miscommunications and more of a loss of goodwill between us. And the number of things that we felt comfortable talking about with each other just shrank and shrank over time, until we found ourselves in this place where we were still nominally calling each other very close friends, but we felt really challenged to be vulnerable and actually talk about the substance of our lives with each other. And we wanted to include that experience in the book because it felt true to some things that have happened to us and other friendships.
Friedman on recognizing her failures in acknowledging race in their friendship:
For a long time I really wanted it to be true that despite this difference in our races, our friendship was somehow insulated from the issues of race and racism — anti-Black racism in particular — that really permeates this country. Like we could talk about race in the news, or we could talk about racist things that Aminatou experienced at work or elsewhere in the world, but when it came to our friendship, we were somehow special and like sealed off from these dynamics. And over time, it has really become clear to me what a lie that is and how that was really just something that I wanted to believe, not something that was true for her in every moment.
Sow reflecting on discussing race and racism with Friedman:
[In] these moments in intimate relationships you really have to decide: Oh, like, that feels weird. That was awkward. Do I say something … or do I just move on and pretend that it's not there? And I think that that feeling is so recognizable. … I think, you know, within the bounds of intimate relationships, obviously, we have so much more grace and so much more forgiveness at play. Because like Anne said, I think we really all want to believe that our relationships are insulated from the rest of the world. And that is just not true. Because of racism, we just do not get to have nice things! ... But I think that even for people who are adept at talking about social justice — like us — [we had to] recognize that talking about dynamics that happened in the world doesn't insulate us from having to talk about them as they happen in our relationship.